Monday, October 15, 2012

Jeff Carlson: More normal than his fiction would lead you to believe...

Susan: I met Bay Area novelist Jeff Carlson several years ago when I attended a signing for his novel Plague Year at Borderlands Books. I was intrigued by its high-concept nanotech premise -- not to mention one of the most provocative opening sentences of all time: “They ate Jorgenson first.”

I should have run in the other direction.

But I didn’t. Despite the lurid and disturbing subject matter of his novels, I liked Jeff right away. He’s actually a lot more normal than his fiction would lead you to believe.

We’ve continued to stay in touch, and I’ve kept reading his work. In fact, I tricked him into writing me into his sequel Plague War, in which I had a cameo role as Marine PFC Tunis. Jeff got back at me by nuking my character off the face of the earth.

Jeff: Well, you deserved it! Aha ha.

Also, the bomb was falling anyway. There’s nothing like a limited nuclear exchange to fulfill the promise of a book called Plague War...

Susan: ICBMs and nanotech. You really are crazy, aren’t you!

The reason we’re talking today is you’ve expanded your very successful short story The Frozen Sky into a full-length novel by the same name.

I’ve read the short version, which was originally published in the Writers of the Future 23 anthology, but I haven’t gotten to the novel yet. Just so my readers know what we’re talking about, here’s a brief description of the new book:

“I’m hooked.” –Larry Niven
“A first-rate adventure.” –Allen Steele


Something is alive inside Jupiter's ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark... where they confront a savage race older than mankind...


I was going to start by asking how you expanded the short story into a full-length work, but having just re-read the short, a better question might be: How the heck did you manage to write the initial story in sixty pages to begin with? It’s a big, sprawling idea loaded with genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, action, and surprises.

Jeff: Thank you.

The coolest thing about science fiction is its readers expect to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.

Writing a high tech adventure is like dumping eight technical papers, two radio astronomers, a physicist, a biologist, and a Special Forces soldier in a giant blender. You turn it on. Add a liberal amount of ice (or hydrogen sulfide). Then you shove the reader in and turn the blender on again! Bwah ha ha. If they survive, they’ve had a tasty mind-croggling drink.

Susan: There was so much touched upon and alluded to within the short story’s pages. First, the short story has an incredibly intimate cast of characters with one woman, Vonnie, at the heart of the action. I expect you expanded the cast?

Jeff: Yes. One trick in writing short fiction is to minimize the number of heroes and villains. With the novel, I was able to widen the focus.

The Frozen Sky has always been Vonnie’s tale, but now we get to see what happens after the ESA and NASA land support crews on Europa. As always when you bring people together, they have different motives and plans.

Human beings are such tricky little devils. Sometimes they cooperate. Sometimes they work against you.

Several of the plot threads play on the crews’ conflicting loyalties.

Susan: The short story has an intriguing and effective ending point. I want to use the word “provocative” again. It absolutely leaves the reader wanting more — which you now appear to have given them. Does the novel open before the short story begins and/or continue after what’s covered in the story?

Jeff: The opening is the same, although I’ve added more twists and action sequences. By necessity, the short story skipped over a lot of great scenes, which happened off-camera, so to speak.

Almost everyone who read the original story demanded to know what happened next, which was extremely gratifying.

Now there are 250+ pages after that point.

Susan: In addition to the science — which I’ll follow up on in a minute — there were intriguing references to both the politics and economics of Vonnie’s world. That also seemed ripe for expansion.

Jeff: Absolutely.

As with the biology, the astrophysics, and the cool weapons tech, I’m not writing dissertations on geopolitics or “future history.” I write thriller novels, so I tried to touch on what the world is like in the year 2113 without bogging down in who was elected when or what administration passed which trade sanctions. Yaaaawn.

Aha ha ha.

What does excite me is how our environments shape us. This holds equally true for the people in the novel as it does for the bizarre alien civilization inside the ice.

Nurture vs. nature. It’s a fascinating equation.

I also wanted plausible reasons for America, Europe, China, and Brazil to be in competition with each other as far as Jupiter’s moons.

Building a hundred years of “future history” was great fun.

Susan: This is a clearly a science fiction tale, but you really emphasized the thriller aspects of The Frozen Sky. It truly is a thriller. How do you maintain that kind of pacing throughout a full-length novel? Can you?

Jeff: Man, I hope so!

Part of the reason I love my job is I get to learn a million things from a million directions. I like to know how things work, and I’m dazzled by cutting edge awesomeness. Cold fusion. Cyber warfare. Planetology. Sharks. Glaciers. Volcanoes. Evolutionary theory.

At the same time, I also like to blow shit up. I mean gigantic big explosions, laser battles, and freaky blind monsters in the dark.

The trick is to salt in the geeked-out high concept science with real human drama, sex, intrigue, loyalty, honor, determination, and everything else that makes human beings such contradictions.

Can I say “blow shit up” again, too? :) I’m a boy. I like blowing things up.

Susan: What kind of research did you do? How much science do you need to know to write convincingly?

Jeff: I read a lot and read widely. I’m lucky that my father is a mechanical engineer who worked in the space race and later took part in developing orbital laser defense systems. I also have a step-brother who’s a lt. colonel in the Army Special Forces.

Two years ago, unbelievably, the house beside ours went up for sale – and who should move in? A computational biologist.

My experience has been that experts of this nature are excited to talk about their specialties, even to the point of fielding wild questions like: “If I needed four times as much hemoglobin as I do now, how would I evolve that way?” or “Could I make det cord out of socks, dirt, and jet fuel?” It doesn’t hurt to buy them lunch or a twelve pack.

These are interesting, interested people, and it’s my privilege to hound them with wild questions.

Susan: All of this leads to the necessity of world-building… You’re a hundred years in the future dealing with advanced technology and alien ecosystems. Where do you even start?

Jeff: Actually, that’s an easy answer. I started with Vonnie. We see everything through her eyes and learn with her as she orients herself inside the ice.

My favorite aspect of the entire story happens in Chapter One. Vonnie sympathizes with, admires, and even likes the sunfish despite the fact that they’re trying to kill her.

Susan: I thought one of the coolest things about the short story was its awesome, non-linear structure. It’s just a terrific, intriguing, but also challenging way to tell a story. Is the novel told in the same manner?

Jeff: I grew up reading a lot of Joe Haldeman, who’s a sophisticated storyteller who knows a good piece of subtext when it bites him.

Both the short story and the new novel of The Frozen Sky open with a flashfoward to set its tone and its themes, not to mention what the Motion Picture Association of America calls “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some sexual content, brief nudity, and language.”

From the opening sequence, the new novel is told in a standard linear fashion.

Susan: You’ve been traditionally published by “Big Six” publishers in the past, and you’ve self-published your Long Eyes short story collection. This novel is also self-published. Do you want to talk about that?

Jeff: Welcome to the future, dudette!

Personally, I still prefer dead tree books. I spend waaaay too much in front of a computer every day to want to unwind with another gadget… but I’m rapidly fading into the minority.

Ebooks offer direct contact with readers, more readers, better royalties, and more artistic control.

For a writer, what’s not to like?

Also, anyone who wants a nice trade paperback of The Frozen Sky can find it on Amazon,, and some independent stores. I freaking LOVE independent book stores. I love Barnes & Noble and the regional chains. As a working pro, I don’t care whether you want your book in e-format, print, or audio. You can have The Frozen Sky any way you want it.

Susan: What’s next, Jeff? By that I mean tell me something significant about this big secret thriller you’ve been hinting about for many, many months.

Jeff: Interrupt is an epic disaster thriller in the vein of James Rollins, Doug Preston, and classic end-of-the-world books such as Lucifer’s Hammer or One Second After.

What is my problem, right? Bwah HA ha ha. I’m a happy guy. I have an amazing family and I love what I do. But as a writer, as a student of human nature, I’m fascinated with backing my characters to the wall. That’s what the Plague Year novels and The Frozen Sky are all about. As much as I like blowing shit up, I’m also interested in the best of the everything human – our strength, our imagination, our love and loyalty for each other.

We sold Interrupt to 47North, Amazon’s new sf/f publishing imprint. They intend to go crazy with it next July. Obviously their main focus is Kindle, but they’ll also release print and audio editions.

Here’s a gorgeous advance blurb just to mess with your head! :)

"Interrupt is an edgy, exciting thriller full of adventure and surprises. This book has it all -- elite military units, classified weaponry, weird science, a dash of romance, and horrific global disasters. Carlson writes like a knife at your throat." --Bob Mayer, New York Times bestselling author of the Green Berets and Area 51 series.
Susan: Wow! I guess all that’s left is to say thanks for visiting. Come again anytime. Maybe in July?

Jeff: Love to. Thank you, Susan.

Susan: Oh, wait, I have a bonus. Below I’m posting some video of Jeff along with authors Mira Grant and Scott Sigler discussing “the science of science fiction” as part of last year’s Bay Area Festival of Science. I actually posted this a year ago, but not enough people saw it. This is a fascinating discussion amongst three really smart and articulate writers. Enjoy!

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